Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Ride to the end of Europe!

Thessaloniki to Istanbul ... A few words from the road...

So, the end of the road was reached. After 6 years of epic riding, 6 years of incredible exploration of some of Europe’s further flug reaches, we arrived at the Turkish border, as a more worldly wise crew of riders, than we had set out. Some had transformed their cycling, some had transformed their bikes,
Some had even learned how to mend a puncture on this ride across a continent.

As the huge white crescents fluttered on their red backgrounds overhead, we entered Turkiye, and pedalled towards our first set of towering minarets. Paul and Jason avoided a full body examination at the border, and trundled through to join us at the roadside, where we had been greeted by the Turkish Police. Immediately bristling with some misplaced sense of guilt, another sense of guilt overtook us all as we realised that the only reason the police had stopped was to wish us ‘Hozgeldniz’ – or welcome to Turkey. The chief of police for the local area, who was driven by his junior around the border complex, offered us an escort to Edirne, our first overnight. ‘Is there anything else I Can help you with?’, what a fantastic first impression of this bustling country!

From the border, the town of Edirne is just a short ride. Comfortably within an hour we had crested the final hill, and the enormous main Mosque marked our evening’s destination. The sense approaching a new continent here in Turkey is palpable, people’s faces are different, the air is laden with the smell of different spices, and the spires of churches have now been replaced with slender space rocket minarets. But the biggest thing that hits home as we ride through to Edirne, and then Corlu and on to Istanbul, is that this country is firing on all cylinders.

Somehow under the radar, Turkey has been marching forwards on its own economic wonder journey. But it was something that few of us in our cycling group were aware of. We fumbled for Wikipedia over the next three evenings here in Turkey as we rode closer to Istanbul, to find out more about what is happening. Firstly, the small road that I had taken from the border to take the quiet road to Istanbul some 13 yrs previous, has now been replaced by a smooth tarmac dual carriageway, which runs perfectly parallel to a big motorway just a few kilometres away. And as we pulled in to Corlu the next evening, we already had a sense of coming into range of Istanbul, at a distance of well over 100km from the city centre.

After Corlu, on the final day’s ride to our destination, we had a few short kilometres of countryside, before soaring towerblocks, gleaming hi tech factories, and ostentatious retail and hotel developments engulfed our progress. We had tried hard to plot a way through the madness on quieter routes, but the bottom line is, that Istanbul is the 8th largest city in the world, and is a city well and truly on the move, so cyclists had better be intrepid to cope with what it is going to offer! We crossed two causeways, where we were obliged to follow the D100, our guide towards Istanbul for the last 2 and a half days, the latter one  being gridlocked by traffic, before we gasped for breath and took a sharp exit down towards the coast once again.

We reached lunch on our final day easily, and were treated, as we were throughout Turkey, to some most fantastic fare. Turkish cuisine, for the uninitiated, is with out doubt one of my personal favourites, laced as it is with good hearty flavours, complimented by simple but exotic spices. We were able to take our time over lunch, and enjoy a full range of freshly prepared kebabs, fluffy middle eastern rice, lahmacun Turkish flat bread topped with tomatoes and herbs, and delicious pastry stuffed with Turkish cheese and potato. For a simple roadside spot fronting on to the roaring D100, it was somewhat surprising to be fed such a gourmet feast. By the time we remounted our two wheeled transport, we were well and truly stuffed. And of course, as everyone quite accurately predicted, directly after lunch, as is traditional, we were greeted with the steepest hill of the whole trip.

The good news, however, was that this was the final hill for us, and from here we soon found ourselves riding a pleasant coastal cycle route, enjoying the fresh air wafting in from the Sea of Marmara. This route in for the final 20km, is a beautiful ride, and after looking straight out at the enormous numbers of cargo ships anchored just offshore, our eyes, on rounding the final headland are drawn to Turkey’s Mediterannean Jewel. Finally, we see the distinctive domes and spires of Sultanahmet. We gather by the water’s edge for a team photo, and pedal the final couple of kilometres into town. Up one last steep cobbled street, and we emerge miraculously beside the Blue Mosque. In fact, we actually emerge inside the blue mosque complex, and the celebrations begin. Big hugs, stiff handshakes, and slaps on the back. The team are to be congratulated… no crashes… no incidents, just great riding, and good times…

Just one question remains. Where are we going next year? You tell us... !!

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